We got the morning bus to Siem Reap which took most of the day. South east Asia has the principle of not letting a bus leave until it is full meaning the bus attendants are on curb watch most of the way to pick up extras. The countryside is so beautiful with its red soil and skinny white cows grazing. It is also fascinating to watch the various attempts of human Tetris in transporting, men sleeping on the roof of a lorry, 10 in a Tuk Tuk and 5 on a motorbike is not uncommon. We were also fascinated by the makeshift petrol stations at the side of the road!
We arrived and our friendly Tuk Tuk driver was there to meet us and take us to our hostel. We walked into Siem Reap centre for some delicious Kymer food and a look around the central market. One item that is hard to escape are the ever attractive “Cambodia pants,” but having resisted them up until now, I gave in figuring they would be good temple attire.
It was happy hour back at the hostel when we returned and we got roped into a pool competition. I went out first round to a very worthy opponent, Ricky however made it to the second round. Through a series of flukes, Francesca, a girl from the couple we were talking to, made it to win the competition however as the prize for winning was a drink, by the end of the night she was in no fit state to join us to Angkor What? bar.
We decided to buy the three day temple pass to explore the Angkor city which holds numerous temples. In order to keep it interesting we started with some of the lesser known temples to build up to spectacular Angkor Wat. Our Tuk Tuk driver was there to meet us at 9.30. The area of the Angkor city is beautiful, the best maintained roads in all of Cambodia it seems, roads surrounded by man made lakes. On our journey to the first temple we saw four monkeys crossing the road, so strange to be in a country where that’s normal!
All the temples were part of Angkor city, the capital city under the first emperor of the Kymer empire, Jayavaran VII who unified the land in around 800. They were all built between the 9th and 15th centuries but were well preserved, where structures had fallen to ruin, the intricate detail remained. Our first temples were the temples of Pre Rup and East Mebon. Both were incredible structures with intricate detailing and both would have been part of the journey to the afterlife.
The remarkable thing was how different each temple was from the next. Neak Pean was entirely built on water and you had to cross a boardwalk to get to it. In contrast Prear Khan was majestic temple of victory over the Cham invasion and this showed in its grand stance.
After a simple roadside lunch we went on to Angkor Thom, a large complex covering 9km which became the capital of the capital. Inside was the Bauphon, which was the state palace, and the royal palace both of which you could climb the ruins to a great height and look out over the forest. Where parts of the temple lie in ruin it is like a Lego collection waiting to reconstruct using the patterns.
Angkor Thom is also home to the famous Bayon temple, the one with all the faces. There is approximately 200 faces in the structure of the temple. This one was my favourite, it was so interesting and the temple kept unfolding to reveal more.
Finally we were to head to Phnom Bakheng, the temple on the mount to watch sunset. At the foot of the hill there was a monkey climbing on the sign so we went to have a look and it took a liking to Ricky, first jumping on his head and picking his scalp for crawlies to eat. Then it took an interest on the scab on his arm so Ricky pulled it off and was holding it like a baby, it was so adorable (although I didn't want it near me, the ticket collector told me female monkeys often bite girls.). Then the cheeky thing started gnawing at our water bottle. We managed to shake it off and started the climb to the peak.
We were early for sunset and sat there enjoying the hot afternoon sun until around 4:30 when the crowds started to join us. We got talking to a really nice lady and her niece, both from Singapore and whiled away the last hour until the sunset. It was really pretty, apparently the hoardes of Chinese tourists thought so too!
We got our Tuk Tuk back to the hostel. Our hostel was full for the night and we moved across the road to a 2$ a night hostel. It didn't have windows. It did have bedbugs.
We had am 8am start to go to one of the temples further away. We quickly moved back across the road to our original beautiful hostel and got the Tuk Tuk about 1 hour away to Banteay Srei. This temple is often referred to as the women's temple as the carvings in the red brick are so intricate and detailed that it is assumed they can only have been carved by a women. It is also the only temple not to be commissioned by a king, but probably an advisor or tutor to the king.
After the the temple we went to Kbal Spean, or the river of 1000 Lingas. This was buried deep into the jungle and from where the Tuk Tuk dropped us we walked about 2km, mostly uphill through landscape which looked like the jungle book. The branches draped from the trees and the roots laced through the sand. At one point a small snake scuttled just past my feet. I easily could have tread on it as it was camouflaged with the roots. At the top was a beautiful waterfall and carved into the stone riverbed was many pictures depicting stories, religious characters and 1000 carved lingas believed to turn the water holy.
There was a small path which followed the river which looked well walked but not cleared like the other paths. We started walking assuming it led to more, but about 1km along we realised it probably wasn't a route. Ricky jumped back as he saw a much larger snake scuttle through the undergrowth away from us and we quickly turned back!
On the descent we stopped at a rock on which you could sit and look out over the whole jungle. It really was incredible, this dense green blanket which you know is hiding so much in flora and fauna, however I would not like to be lost inside. It was also surprisingly quiet with only the odd bird call.
We returned the hour and a half to the city and had a quiet afternoon. In the evening we went to Khmer Kitchen, a very popular restaurant in town. Here we tried the Kymer curry, really nice as a mild and creamy curry.
Our last day at the temples had a very early start. We were up at 4:30 to meet our driver for the sunrise over Angkor Wat. The Tuk Tuk ride was chilly and we were in place shortly after 5am to watch. The sky begun to lighten and by 5:45 broke into beautiful stripes of colour. Angkor Wat has a lake out front meaning you get a perfect reflection in the water. The wake up call was definitely worth it.
We we got into the temple whilst the crowds were still snapping away and found it deserted. This grand temple is huge and although designed as a Hindu temple it has since been used within Buddhism. It was built as a tomb for Suryavarman II and the 300 Apsala carvings are his assistance in the afterlife. Inside it is its height which is striking, however the detail preserved does not match the level of some of the other temples.
We got some breakfast before heading on to Victory gate, Ta Keo and finally Ta Proam. This is the famous tomb raider temple and it did not disapoint. The temple is the similar style to the Bayon, however is being engulfed by massive trees which have incorparated themselves into the structure. Some of the huge gnarled roots have pulled down walls and split ceilings and have now become part of the structure of the ruins.
Our last temple was Banteay Kdei, a grand finale to our visit. We stocked up on souvenirs, waved goodbye to the Angkor temples and returned to the hostel for a much needed nap!
One of our favourite things about Asia is still the street food. You can get noodles, veg and egg cooked in front of you on a makeshift kitchen on the side of a moped for $1, then a crepe with all the trimmings. It is also fun to try all the wacky stuff like mango with chilli or banana deep fried in rice, served in a banana leaf.
We took advantage of our leisurely start before renting bicycles and following the river out of Siem Reap. Within a few minutes of the town, everything has transformed. The roads slip away and become red sand and the houses become the wooden shacks on stilts that you see in the countryside. The children practice their ‘hello’s’ as you pass and life moves slower than the town. This is the Cambodia you can’t help but fall in love with!
In the evening we got talking to some really nice people in our hostel and played some card games. Competitive games seem the best international language and later we went for dinner altogether.
Once again we rented bikes, this time for a longer bike ride as we headed to West Baray lake about 10km away. We followed the highway but took a wrong turn outside of the city. Our d-tour again took us off the beaten track. We ended up in the village of a Buddhist monastery with its music filling the countryside, then followed the dusty road through remote settlements where village volleyball tournaments and Sunday lunch preparations were happening. The children shout “what’s you name, my name is” as you pass and giggle like mad if you answer.
We arrived at the lake and took a seat amongst the locals on a wooden platform overlooking the lake. As the baskets of street food came round we got shrimp pancakes, spring rolls and $1 worth of silk grubs and fried crickets. The grubs were almost like potato however the crickets minus their legs and wings were a crunchy dish.
We cooled off back at our pool and later met our hostel friends to go out for some Cambodian BBQ. Very little escapes the heat here, the menu spoke of crocodile, ostrich and shark!
We had been looking for a volunteer project to get involved in as Cambodia is the kind of place where the poverty is so frontline it is hard not to become attached. One of our responses was from a school who although they had enough volunteers was happy for us to go and see their work. We went to visit for afternoon classes which started at 2pm and was a 45 minute cycle from the city. When we arrived the school was down a dirt track and was a very simple 4 classrooms and a library made from bamboo. The Cambodian man who had started it all had previously been teaching English in a rice field when he was given enough money by 2 Australian travellers to build his first classroom. Now the school, anything but financially secure, operates with around 20 English teachers and an intake of about 70 children. Even being there for a day you got the sense of how quickly this project was taking off but how fragile it could be.
We were told school in Cambodia is a somewhat corrupt affair costing $40 a year to send your child but often requiring you to bribe the teacher to allow the children to pass tests and proceed to the next grade. Bearing in mind the average wage is less than $1 per hour this is crippling for some families. On top of this, you pay per subject so how much you learn depends on your financial standing. A lot of the children at the school we visited could not afford to attend the government school, but some would attend a few days a week and visit the free school on the other days.
We sat in on class c, the lowest ability class. They were a lively bunch so copying from the board and games of hangman were interspersed with songs such as the banana song and the Macarena. The only classes taught at the school were English and computer lessons but many of the children aspire to work in tourism so this education gives them a head start.
The bell rang for break (the bell was a bit of iron canister and a stick) and the children pile outside to kick a football around or climb all over you, you certainly aren’t a stranger for long!
For the second lesson of the afternoon we sat in on A+ class, the most advanced,
who had been translating songs to learn their meanings, then work to choreograph a dance to it. We watched this class performing their dance to Keane- somewhere only we know. It was so lovely to watch them have so much fun and also cause so much mischief!
When the bell rang again the children poured out home and we went with a few of the volunteer teachers to the local market. Many just volunteer for a week or a few weeks and live nearby in a volunteer house. We spent an hour chatting around a table at the market before some had to go back to school to teach the evening computer class to the teenage group and we cycled back into town.
Cambodia is a challenging place to visit with so many children begging or out selling unable to go to school and it’s hard to come away unattached with the people are so gentle and the country so beautiful.
Next stop, Battambang (pronounced Battambong.)